Subject Descriptions

Bachelor of Arts in Western Civilisation

Core requirements and study options 

The Bachelor of Arts in Western Civilisation, and suite of related degrees, constitute an original and distinctive liberal arts program. Students can choose to complete a single Bachelor of Arts in Western Civilisation degree or a double degree combination with:

All students are required to complete the following 16 core Western Civilisation subjects within their single or double degree combinations.

This subject is foundational for the entire degree. It provides basic training on how to approach great works and prepares students for studying this degree. Students are introduced to an updated idea of Hutchins’ (1952) ‘the great conversation’, becoming acquainted with the educational vision that underpins their liberal arts degree. Focusing on exemplary ‘works of genius’ students learn how to engage with and appreciate great intellectual and artistic masterpieces. In each case, students confront the philosophical questions raised by the work. They explore how great works of Western civilisation speak to one another across the ages and how those works might be viewed from diverse perspectives, both within and beyond Western traditions of thought and art. Students learn how their studies will advantage them in their lives and careers and discover why a liberal arts education is of contemporary relevance.

Key readings: Hutchins, ‘The Great Conversation’; Baggini, How the World Thinks (selections). Loos, Ornament and Crime. Freud, Mourning and Melancholia; ‘The Moses of Michelangelo’; Henry James, The Golden Bowl. Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (selections); Martha Nussbaum. Love’s Knowledge (selections); Schopenhauer, “Genius and Virtue”; T.S. Eliot, Tradition and Individual Talent; Tolstoy, What is Art? (selections); Vasari, Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptures, and Architects (selections).

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Ancient Greece produced some of Europe’s finest and most lasting works of fiction, history and theatre. In this subject, students will become acquainted with a sample of these great works, exploring Ancient Greek ideas and ideals of, for example, Aretê; heroism; tragedy, comedy, and beauty. Students will assess the relevance of these ideas and ideals to contemporary concerns and thought.

Key readings: Homer’s epic poems: The Iliad and The Odyssey (selections); Hesiod, Theogony; Works and Days (selections); Aeschylus, Agamemnon; Sophocles, Antigone; Euripides, Medea, The Trojan Women; Aristophanes, LysistrataFrogs; Aristotle, The Poetics (1-16).

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This subject examines philosophical conceptions of wisdom, truth and reason prominent in ancient times and today. It introduces students to theories of truth; theories of knowledge; sophistry; scepticism; and classical and non-standard conceptions of logic and reasoning.

Key readings: Plato, Republic; The Apology; Theaetetus; Aristotle, RhetoricPrior Analytics, Categories, Topics; Metaphysics (selections); Sextus Empiricus, Outlines of Pyrrhonism; Carroll, ‘What the Tortoise Said to Achilles’;  Nāgārjuna, The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way. Students also engage with the work of following contemporary authors: Simon Blackburn; Harry Frankfurt; Miranda Fricker; Jay Garfield; Edmund Gettier; Graham Priest; Duncan Pritchard; W. V. O. Quine; Richard Rorty; Bertand Russell; Linda Zagzebski.

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This subject provides basic training on how to approach great art and architecture. Focusing on selected exemplars students learn how to engage with and appreciate great artistic and architectural masterpieces. In each case, students will confront the philosophical questions raised by the work under scrutiny. Students are introduced to philosophical theories of art and put these to the test with reference to case studies - examples of great music, paintings, and literature from across the Western canon.

Students will be challenged to think about the following questions: Can art educate? Can art improve us morally? And if so, how? Can art build or edify moral character? If so, do different art forms do so differently? Is there any means to distinguish morally insightful from morally dubious art?

Key readings: Kant, Critique of Judgment (selections); Wittgenstein, Notes on Aesthetic; Loos, ‘Architecture’; Danto, Andy Warhol (chapter 3); Freud, The Ego and the Id; Lukacs, ‘Healthy or Sick Art?’; Belting, ‘Iconic Presence: Images in Religious Traditions’;  Hume, ‘On the Standard of Taste’;  Berger, Ways of Seeing (chapter 3); ); Cavell, ‘Taste and the Moral Sense, Collingwood, The Principles of Art (chapter 6); Wilde, ‘Lecture to Art Students’.

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This subject looks at the Roman Republic and Empire through the eyes of its historical, literary, poetic and philosophical products. Students are acquainted with a sample of these great works, and will assess their relevance to contemporary concerns and debates.

Key readings: Caesar, On the Gallic Wars;  Cicero, De Re Publica; De Officiis (selections); Horace, Odes and Epodes, (selections); Juvenal, Satires; Livy, From the Foundation of the City (Book 1); Lucretius, De Rerum Natura; Aurelius, Meditations (selections). Ovid, Metamorphoses (selections); Petronius, Satyricon; Seneca, Selected Philosophical Letters (selections) Vergil, Aeneid (selections).

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What, if anything, makes a good life? Could one live well just by satisfying one’s desires? What role does pleasure have in a good life? What role does honour, or other virtues, have in the good life? What is the role of friendship in the good life? Is the meaning of life externally given or can we create our own meaning? Could there be more than one ultimate end to life? Which virtues, if any, are best? Are the virtues unified?

Ancient thinkers were deeply concerned with the good life and how to live it. This subject gives special attention to Aristotle’s account of human nature, ethics and the virtues, drawing mainly from De Anima and Nicomachean Ethics. Comparisons are made with The Analects of Confucius. Students explore the contemporary relevance of virtue ethics, and its credibility today, in response to current critiques and concerns, looking especially at themes in Alasdair MacIntyre’s seminal, After Virtue (1984). Students engage in independent study on selected topics for which will form the focus of a small group presentation.

Key readings: Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics; Confucius, Analects (Books 1 and 2); MacIntyre, After Virtue.

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The Middle Ages lasted in Europe from roughly the one thousand years spanning from the fall of the Western Roman Empire ca. AD 500 to the beginning of the late 15th century. Europe was later reborn and reformed during the Renaissance. In this subject, students engage with classic literary and artistic works from these remarkable periods.

Key readings: Augustine, Confessions; Beowulf; Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy; Chaucer, Canterbury Tales (selections); Erasmus, In Praise of Folly (selections), Dante, Divine Comedy, Inferno (selections); Machiavelli, The Prince.

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Students will critical examine the early modern debates, that resonate today, between rationalists and empiricists challengers about the nature of ideas and whether and how they are acquired.

Key readings: Descartes, Meditations on First PhilosophyDiscourse on the Method; Spinoza, Ethics, Leibniz, The Monadology; Discourse on Metaphysics; Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding; Berkeley, Principles of Human Knowledge (selections)Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous; Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding.

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Holy texts are taken to reveal sacred, divine truths. From this starting point this subject reflects on the nature of religious belief and practice. It focuses on selected readings from The Bible. Comparisons are made between relevant passages of The Bible and The Quran, the scared text of Islam. Students will discover how these sacred texts inform the religious attitudes that influence Western thinking, art and literature.

This subject explores the critical importance of revelation in the phenomenology and epistemology of religion – it will examine various accounts of the possible relation between reason, faith and revelation and the classic proofs of God’s existence.

Key readings: The Bible (selections from New and Old Testaments)): The Qur’an (selections); Anselm, ‘Anselm’s Ontological Argument’; Augustine, ‘That Which Is, Is Good’; Cicero ‘The Design Argument’; Hume, ‘Of Miracles’, Galileo Galilei, ‘Letter to Castelli’; Al-Ghazali, ‘The Kalam Cosmological Argument’; Hamza Yusuf, ‘Death, Dying, and the Afterlife in the Qur’an’. Kierkegaard, “Truth is Subjectivity” from Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Swinburne, ‘What does the Old Testament mean?’

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This subject focuses on a study of selected works of the late Renaissance. Questions will be raised about the relation between philosophy and literature, asking to what extent and in what way philosophical thought infuses imaginative literature. In musing on these matters, students will examine selected comic, tragic and historical works and plays – those of Shakespeare as well as those of his forerunners and contemporaries, such as: Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene and Christopher Marlowe’s The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus. Other indicative works that may be examined include: John Donne, selected sonnets and poems; John Milton, Paradise Lost; Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote de la Mancha.

Students will approach the works they scrutinize bearing in mind questions raised by the philosophy of literature: Do the works make any philosophical assumptions? Do they advance or attempt to justify any philosophical claims? How does engaging with such works shape our imagination? What should we make of alternative and anachronistic accounts of the story-worlds portrayed in great literature?

Key readings:  Marlowe, Doctor Faustus; Cervantes, Don Quixote; Spenser, The Faerie Queene, Shakespeare, King Lear; The Complete Sonnets and Poems (selections), Donne; The Complete Poems of John Donne (selections); Milton, Paradise lost.

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Western science arose and matured in the West between the late 15th and the late 17th centuries. In this subject students become acquainted with exemplary works produced during the momentous period that constitutes the birth of science in the West. They investigate which non-Western influences played a part in that birth and how well contemporary theories in the philosophy of science can account for it.

Key readings: Cartwright, 'Contingency and the order of nature'; Ptolemy, Almagest; Copernicus, On the Revolution of Celestial Spheres (incl. Osiander's preface and Copernicus' Dedication of the Revolutions of the Heavenly Bodies to Pope Paul III), and the Commentariolus; Galileo, Dialogue concerning the two chief world systems, and 'Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina'; Ibn al-Haytham, Optics; Bacon, Novum Organum; Harvey, De Motu Cordis; Boyle, The Origins of Forms and Qualities; Cavendish, Philosophical Letters; Newton, Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy; Du Châtelet, Foundations of Physics; Darwin, On the Origins of Species; Cartwright, 'Loose talk kills: What's worrying about unity of method'.

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Known as the ‘The Century of Lights’, the so-called long 18th century was a time during which ideas dominated. It was a time during which Europe and the Americas underwent intellectual, political and social changes – changes that issued in the modern era. In this subject, students become acquainted with the works of the great thinkers of this period.

Key readings: Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments; Voltaire, Candide; Rousseau, The Social Contract; The Second Discourse; Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France; Paine, Rights of Man; Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman; Shelley, Frankenstein; Austen, Sense and Sensibility.

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This subject will investigate the German and English roots of analytic philosophy. It examines the idealist philosophies of Kant and Hegel and asks, how – in importantly different ways – these relate to and oppose the realistic stances of the analytic philosophers at the turn of the 20th century – Frege, Russell and the early Wittgenstein. It concludes by looking at the work of the later Wittgenstein, and considers to what extent it breaks faith with or develops themes in his earliest writings. 

Key readings: Kant, The Critique of Pure Reason; Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit; Frege, “Sense and Reference”; “The Thought: A Logical Inquiry”; Russell, “On Denoting”; “Logical Atomism”; The Problems of Philosophy; Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-PhilosophicusPhilosophical Investigations.

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The modern era witnessed incredible artistic and intellectual movements connected to larger changes that swept through Europe and the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries. These changes were a response to the unsettling social, political, and cultural events of that period – including the first two World Wars. In this subject, students become acquainted with the works of great thinkers and artists of this era.

Key readings: Darwin, On the Origin of Species (selections); Marx and Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party; Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy; Freud, Introduction to PsychoanalysisCivilisation and Its Discontents; W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk; T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land; Woolf, A Room of One’s One; de Beauvoir, The Second Sex; Greer, The Female Eunuch; Lloyd, The Man of Reason: "Male" and "Female" in Western Philosophy.

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This capstone subject will examine the origins of the idea of democracy at work in contemporary Australia, examining its philosophical roots and in the founding of British and American governments. It will ask penetrating questions about the assumptions behind democratic government and examine the strengths and weaknesses of democracy in today’s world. Students are required to engage in a special capstone project as part of their major final assessment.

Key readingsMagna Carta; Hobbes, Leviathan; Locke, Second Treatise on Government; J.S. Mill, On Liberty; Hamilton and Maddison, Federalists Papers; De Tocqueville, Democracy in America; Bagehot, The English Constitution; Deakin, The Federal Story; Hancock, Australia.

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In Measure for Measure, Act 2, scene 2, 114–123, Isabella speaks of the self as “a glassy essence”. This way of thinking of selves harkens back to a longstanding idea in Western thought and art that selves have an essence – whether divine or otherwise– that stands apart from the rest of nature. Students will reflect on how this idea of the self is portrayed down the ages in great works of art and literature.

With reference to specific works, students will engage with contemporary philosophical debates about the nature and types of selves. They will confront questions such as: Are there any such things as selves? Is the self is any kind of thing? If there are selves, are they to be understood in phenomenological, minimal or narrative terms, or some combination of these? Or should we adopt no-self views as propounded by certain Western and Buddhist thinkers.

Key readings: Sagas; Blake; Wordsworth; Walt Whitman; Emerson, Self-Reliance; Kafka, The Metamorphosis; Dostoyevsky, Notes from Underground and other selected representations of the self in Western literature and art. Students will also be acquainted with contemporary works, such as Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self to guide and inform their inquiries.

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The Bachelor of Arts in Western Civilisation (Honours) involves one additional year of study following the successful completion of a relevant undergraduate degree. Through their Honours research project, students will focus on an approved research question of their choosing and conduct an extended study in the liberal arts.

Honours study equips students with marketable skills of value to many employers. On successful completion of an Honours degree, students will have produced a substantial piece of research. The Honours degree provides students with an opportunity to work closely with, and learn from, an experienced academic supervisor in conducting their in-depth study which can serve as a pathway to more advanced, higher degree research.

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